Queen of the kitchen
From southern China to the American South, Huali Dong serves cuisine that reflects her identity as American and as Chinese
Huali Dong never imagined she would work in the restaurant business when she left China for the United States at age 19.
Now she is the owner of World Buffet, a Chinese restaurant in Hot Springs that she and her husband opened in 2010.
Dong’s family forked over about $50,000 for a stranger, someone from Japan, to arrange a visa and for her to fly to the U.S. from Fujian, a coastal province in southern China known for its production of tea and its proximity to Taiwan. Such smugglers are known as “snakeheads” in China and for a couple of decades around the turn of the century helped countless Chinese from Fujian enter the U.S.
Dong says she remembers little about the journey, except that she “worried about a lot.”
“It took a lot of time for my parents to have the money to pay for that,” she said. Her parents, who remained in Fujian, raised fruit on a small plot of land on the side of a hill outside of the village where she grew up.
After a stop in Thailand and then Tokyo, she finally landed on the doorstep of her uncle’s house in Brooklyn. It was 1999. Decades before, her uncle arrived in Chinatown in New York City from Fujian. He spoke no English, slept in a crawlspace under the restaurant where he worked and endured fits of anger from his American manager who yelled at him in frustration because he could not understand what to do. He was 16. Like her uncle, Dong also spoke little English. But unlike the time when her uncle arrived in the U.S., sometime around 1949 when Communist revolutionaries overtook China, Dong encountered a well-oiled network of people from Fujian living across the U.S. who helped her find work.
In a 2014, The New Yorker magazine published an article detailing the phenomenon of the immigrants from Fujian and how they have come to own Chinese restaurants located in major metropolitan areas, like Manhattan, to rural areas as far away as Arkansas.
“In the U.S., the Fujianese took restaurant jobs, learned the trade, and saved up to buy out owners or to open restaurants of their own,” the article said. “The restaurants were concentrated in big cities, but, as competition grew, enterprising immigrants moved away, in search of greater profits.”
From New York, Dong quickly found a job in a restaurant in Chicago. When she moved there, it was the first time she had ever seen snow.
“When I opened my eyes, it was all white,” she said. “In my life, I never saw snow.”
Dong soon moved to other cities, ending up in a restaurant in Pennsylvania that was operated by a
teacher she knew from grade school back in Fujian.
She later returned to Manhattan to work in a Japanese restaurant owned by a family friend. She says she spent every waking hour in the restaurant, learning about different types of fish from the Japanese chef, learning how to manage finances, how to run the front of the business, how to manage staff.
Via what Dong describes as a very random turn of events, she connected with a man who was once her neighbor in her village back in China. He asked her to marry him. She said she was not sure. “One day I woke up, felt sad,” she said. “I was kind of lonely in the United States. It had been snowing and two old people were in front of me helping each other walk on the snow. I was behind them, and thought, ‘When I get old, I want to be like that.’” She and her husband married shortly after. His family owned Chinese restaurants in Arkansas, so, in 2004, the couple moved here, and began to open their own eateries. Dong describes the cuisine as American Chinese food. She says that she and her husband studied the menus of other restaurants owned by Fujianese and incorporated some of their own twists to the menu, such as spices from Mexico or less oil and sugar for healthier cuisine.
Dong says she likes Hot Springs because she feels like it is a safe place to raise her two children and that people in the community are welcoming.
“In New York, people are too busy,” she said. “There may not be big buildings or those beautiful neon signs in the nighttime, but for me, it is quiet and comfortable and has better air, better water and better people. That is what I like.”
Dong has only visited China once since she left, and now that she has virtually no family there (her parents have since immigrated and live in Manhattan), she says she has almost no desire to ever return.
“[In America] you work. You make whatever you have. It is fair,” she said. “I do remember when I was little in China, the man living across from us, how hard he worked, but he stays so poor.”
As far as her cultural identity, Dong says that is something she is still trying to figure out. Her children speak little Chinese. They still celebrate some traditional holidays, like Chinese New Year. They cook Chinese food at home.
“Which country am I from? I don’t know,” she said. “I am kind of like a little bit lost.”